Review: SIX at The Lowry, Salford

SIX the musical

Learn some history and have some fun - SIX (photo previous tour cast) - Credit: Johan Persson

I first saw the joy that is SIX at The Lowry in 2019, when it filled the smaller theatre space, the Quays. Last night's show took place in the huge Lyric theatre, and it has lost none of its verve, its vivacity, its energy or its significant sass

As the audience arrived for last night's opening show, the excitement was palpable. I can't think of a time when I have seen audiences of quite such a diverse make up. From young couples to mums with tweens, groups of giddy teenage girls to more mature ladies on a girls' night out, to dads and daughters and grans with sons, it was a whirling mass of happiness, anticipation and predicted pleasure. And the show did not disappoint. 

If you're still not familiar with the concept, it's a funny, clever, fast-moving, brilliantly written short musical (just 75 minutes long, no breaks) storytelling of the six wives of Henry VIII. Or rather, it's a funny, clever, fast-moving, brilliantly performed musical storytelling BY the six wives of Henry VIII, who want to (at last) give their side of the story. "Remember us from your GCSEs?" cries Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Each one has been little more than a footnote in the history of England's arguably most famous king, but, they ask - WHY is he England's most famous king? Who can name the wife of Henry VII? Who can recall what else Henry achieved during his reign? In the 450 years since Henry died, scholars have failed to focus on the lives of these women, subject to the rule of a tyrant king and husband, who had the power to throw the ultimate tantrum when he wanted something new and pretty to play with. Off with her head!

As each one competes to prove she was the most important wife we should know about, telling her story through song, we learn a lot about the balance of power in the Tudor court, little snippets of the lives of his wives and gain some insight into their reality. The story starts, of course, with Catherine of Aragon, brilliantly brought to life by Chlöe Hart, brought from Spain at the age of 16 to marry Henry's older brother, Arthur, who promptly died. She was then locked away for seven years, next being married to Henry - a marriage that lasted 24 years, till the arrival on the scene of Anne. Catherine is seriously miffed. Always the faithful wife, always adhering to every expectation and demand, here she is, side-lined for a hussy in green. Oh my, she throws that fury out to the audience, powering through every note and raising cries of support as she does do.

The House of Holbein on stage SIX the musical

The Haus of Holbein - sheer joy with a strong message - Credit: Johan Persson

Anne Boleyn, perhaps Henry's most famous wife, scoring a royal husband though clever machinations and keeping her legs firmly closed (he had a son with her sister, who was clearly less savvy) is also rather annoyed about how Henry treated her. Her song, Don't Lose UR Head, with the earworm refrain "Sorry, not sorry 'bout what I said, I'm just tryna have some fun" is fast and fun and cheeky and honest, moving from triumphal (the girl who got the guy) to horror at her impending demise. Played by Jennifer Caldwell, she's hilariously self-centred, perfectly pitched and entirely memorable.

Jane Seymour is, of course, the wife who delivered the necessary heir, before dying just days later. Casey Al-Shaqsy presents Jane as the grieving mother, heart-broken wife, Henry's favourite. Who knows what our history books might record had she lived - maybe Henry's final wife? It was not to be however, and Henry decided to import a Protestant wife from Europe, to shore up his political relations overseas and hopefully produce a spare heir. This brings us to two more brilliant songs and performances. 

Anne of Cleves was selected by Henry based upon a portrait painted by Hans Holbein, perhaps the original user of filters. When German Anne didn't match up to Holbein's flattering 'profile picture' Henry had swiped right on, the marriage was over as soon as it had begun. The Queens' performance of Haus of Holbein, in fabulous 'haus musik' style, complete with glow-in-the-dark spectacles and ruffs, has to be one of the highlights of the show. A satirical look at beauty standards for women, they strut and sing and leave you in no doubt as to how you should feel about it.

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Jessica Niles, playing Anne of Cleves, brings us a happy (indeed, positively smug) Queen, who had no need to suffer Henry's attentions and got to live the rest of her days in a mansion, with a very decent income: "Now I ain't sayin' I'm a gold digger, but check my prenup and go figure…"

Poor young Katherine Howard (Leesa Tulley), married to fat 49-year-old Henry at 17, never really stood a chance. Seduced, used and abused, hers is a cry for help that echoes down the ages and we all know is still being sung today. Leesa is brilliant, her feisty Scots accent adding a spin to the role that resonates with the audience, as she delivers one liners with as much skill as Kevin Bridges. 

As with Katherine, when the King decides he wants you in his bed, to his bed you must go. Catherine Parr (Alana M Robinson) was in love, ready to marry the man of her dreams when Henry decided upon her for his sixth wife, and tore it all down. Parr is now famous only for having survived. The fact that she was the first woman to write and publish a book, in English, that she commissioned a female painter for her portrait, and that she fought for female education is all conveniently forgotten.

Throughout history Henry's wives have been painted in every which way you can imagine, from rabid Catholic to wanton harlot to patient nursemaid, but as the Queens say right at the start, it's time to take his-tory and tell her-story. The realities of these women's lives will never truly be known (who in Henry's time would dare record truths, other than Henry's 'truth'?) but now, live on stage, our six queens present their own stories, taking history into their own hands – and you really, really need to see and hear it told.

SIX plays at the Lowry, Salford, till Sunday 14 August